April 28, 2022

Execution Delays Highlight Problems with Death Penalty

Russ Feingold President

Russ Feingold
ACS President Russ Feingold

I want to update you on the status of the four planned executions that I discussed last week in my article with Christopher Wright Durocher, our vice president of policy and program. Since we published that article on April 19, a number of developments have happened.

First, on Thursday of last week, the Governor of Tennessee granted a temporary reprieve to Oscar Smith due to what Gov. Bill Lee described as, “an oversight in preparation for lethal injection.” It’s well known that states that utilize lethal injection are having a harder and harder time procuring the drugs as more pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell their drugs to states to be used in executions. That said, it’s unclear just what happened in Tennessee’s case, as the state has yet to provide further details on the so-called “oversight.”

While Smith’s execution has been delayed, the Governor has given no indication that the execution will not be rescheduled at some point. This is despite the existence of DNA evidence that could exonerate Smith and statements by multiple jurors that raise serious questions about the trial.

Also on Thursday of last week, Texas insisted on proceeding with the execution of Carl Buntion, who at 78 was the oldest person on death row and the oldest person to be executed in Texas in the modern era. Buntion’s lawyers, David Dow and Jeff Newberry, described the situation well when they wrote in a court briefing, “Having lived under a sentence of death for over three decades in a state which keeps its death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, Buntion has been punished to a degree exceeding that inflicted on anyone else outside of a very small number of death-row prisoners.” As they said, “no legitimate purpose for the death penalty [was] served by carrying out his execution.” And as Christopher and I wrote in our article last week, Buntion’s execution may have satisfied the bloodlust of some, but it did not satisfy justice.

This week, a Texas court halted the execution of Melissa Lucio, which was scheduled for just two days later. The court sent Lucio’s case back to the lower court to review evidence of her actual innocence. While Lucio will remain on death row during the lower court’s review, the halting of her execution is welcomed news. We await the lower court’s review and hope that at a minimum, this will permanently postpone Lucio’s execution.

Lastly, as I noted last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court has put a temporary stay on Richard Moore’s execution, which was set to be done by firing squad. Moore’s lawyers are challenging the constitutionality of using the firing squad for capital punishment. We sincerely hope the court rules that execution by firing squad – or by lethal injection for that matter – is indeed unconstitutional.

As we await further developments in three of these cases, one thing remains absolutely for certain: the death penalty is archaic and unjust. The problems in these cases are not unique, but rather plague the death penalty throughout the states that retain it. Internationally and increasingly nationally, momentum is clearly in the direction of abolishing the death penalty. The reasons for delay in three of these four cases - and the circumstances of Buntion’s execution - should lend more momentum for abolition.

On the federal side, ACS continues to urge President Biden to use his constitutional authority to pardon federal death row. While the President cannot abolish the death penalty on his own, he can significantly advance the cause of abolition by pardoning the federal row and sending a message about the immorality and injustice inherent in capital punishment.

Criminal Justice, Death Penalty